Review: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J. K. Rowling (Book 2, Harry Potter)

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Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J. K. Rowling book cover
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1998) is the second book in J. K. Rowling’s wildly popular series, and sees its hero once again faced with tests more demanding than any boy of his age could be expected to confront. Back in Privet Drive for the summer, Harry finds that the Dursleys are no less suspicious of magic and refuse to have it referred to in their home at all. So when a house elf by the name of Dobby appears in Harry’s bedroom to warn him against returning to Hogwarts, the disturbance infuriates Harry’s uncle and the young wizard is locked in his room and away from the rest of the family. But, with a little help from Ron and a flying Ford Anglia, Harry escapes his over-bearing guardians and makes a safe return to his beloved school. Hogwarts is just as Harry had left it, save for the employment of a new defence against the dark arts teacher, Professor Lockhart; minor celebrity and smarmy incompetent. As Harry settles in for another year filled with exciting lessons, quidditch, and evenings in the Gryffindor common room with friends, it appears that all is not well. A series of attacks on members of the school creates anxiety and fear amongst the student body, and when, following one such attack, a message written in blood, and declaring that the legendary chamber of secrets has been opened, panic descends. The chamber was opened once before by the heir of Slytherin (one of Hogwarts’ four founders), and it would appear that once more one carrying the founder’s blood is at work. Harry himself falls under suspicion after revealing that he, like Slytherin, is able to communicate with snakes, and for the first time he feels the pressure of being suspected and disliked by his peers. In an effort to resolve the mystery, Harry and his friends once more launch into a perilous pursuit, and face challenges greater than they have encountered before.

As with The Philosopher's Stone, Harry here relies on his support network to help him defeat Tom Riddle. And yet, like the Philosopher's Stone, Ron and Hermione are only able to help Harry so far, and it is clear that there are some things in life which must be faced alone. The strength to do this is one of Harry's greatest assets and throughout he takes action rather than allowing life to act upon him, recognising that the choices one makes defines one’s character rather than the things that are imposed upon one.

The introduction of Dobby and house elves in general – who cook, clean, and serve wizards for no financial recompense – opens up a moral lesson encompassing slavery and the treatment of those perceived as inferiors, which straddles several books. Indeed, Rowling uses the books to teach the reader about social acceptance in their own culture. Here the Slytherins value purity of blood over achievement. But, as demonstrated repeatedly, Hermione, who is from muggle parents, is a far superior witch to the pure-blood Malfoy, and it is blind prejudice that causes Slytherins and those of a similar mind to denigrate ‘mud bloods’ (those who do not come from a pure wizarding line).

The plot follows many of the conventions set out in The Philosopher’s Stone but the mystery surrounding Slytherin’s heir keeps the story fresh, and the nature of the relationship between Voldemort and Harry truly begins to take shape here, with more revealed about the Dark Lord and the similarities between himself and Potter. However, this really is the strongest part of the plot and there is little outside of it that is valuable in the context of the series as a whole.

The employment of Lockhart, who is worse than useless – a fraud and buffoon – seems an odd step on Dumbledore’s part, and Lockhart sticks out as a comic character who offers little to the plot other than a warning to Harry about how fame can distort one’s character. In comparison to the dependable and fierce Dumbledore, Lockhart’s success is fragile and based on lies. Rowling here suggests that the solid, but less glamorous, foundation of knowledge, humility, and love that Dumbledore symbolises is far more desirable.

There is too much recapping of what had been explained in the first book, and in general there is a sense that the plot is a re-run of the formula that worked so well in The Philosopher’s Stone. The plot, like the central characters, feels distinctly juvenile for large parts and older readers will have to adjust down their expectations to enjoy the narrative and accept some of the characters’ behaviour.

The Chamber of Secrets is possibly the weakest book of the series, with little new ground covered and, save for a significant and well written finale, little of interest in the wider context of the series; too many trivial interactions and too little valuable content.

Probably the weakest book in the series, but still enjoyable. In truth, there's little of value to the wider series, so it's best to enjoy The Chamber of Secrets for what it is. 


Useful Links
Reviews of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets on Amazon (US)
Film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets on Amazon (UK)
Film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets on Amazon (US)  

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2 comments:

The Young Book Collector said...

So judging by your review, would you rate this a three out of five? I remember reading the last book of the series, and couldn't help but think "why is this book taking forever?" lol.

Matthew Selwyn said...

Something like that. I love the series, but this is weak compared to the better books. The third book is certainly full of more complex ideas, yet still terse - I'm looking forward to reviewing that one :)